Keeping it Simple: The Good Ol’ County Fair

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These are my people.

They understand the joy that comes from the simplicity of dirt, animals, crafts and food-on-a stick.

It’s five-dollar fun. Tractor pulls and cows. Sitting on straw bales watching a rough log coerced into a shapely bear by a chainsaw.

Walking through rows in the stables and barns. Just looking at the behooved and be-horned because they are there, not because you have a true appreciation.

It’s unpretentious and smelly.

Collections are assembled and pies are baked. The most watered, most loved vegetables are blue ribbon pinned. You could probably taste the pride, if they let you.

The barkers don’t bark. There is no competition. They just sit and swelter. Waiting for you to decide your life is incomplete without a terminal goldfish or matted stuffed animal.

Alliances are forged in color. You are green. I am red. But we will all come together over their harvested goods. Sit at long tables, family style. Introductions unnecessary.

These are my people.

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KIS9All photos taken at the Stephenson County Fair, Freeport, Illinois.

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Harried Poppins: Free Bowling and Racing…Worms?

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Two days of talk about all the details that go along with being the responsible adult.

Now for the good stuff.

If you haven’t heard about www.kidsbowlfree.com, you’ve been ignoring your junk inbox. It looks very spammy, but it’s a legit program that is exactly what it says it is. Kids get 2 FREE games of bowling A DAY for the whole summer. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. We don’t go that much, but we tried it out this week.

It’s an easy sign-up, just a bit of information and then pick your closest participating bowling alley. You’ll receive an e-mail every Sunday for the week.. We go to Ten Pin Alley in Fitchburg, but there’s a large list of centers in Wisconsin (and everywhere else). When you go into bowl, use your smart phone to follow the link in the e-mail and the employee will input the necessary code right on your phone. Adults can sign-up for a separate program, but it costs about $25 and we don’t bowl enough for it to be worth it.

You do have to pay for shoe rental ($2 at Ten Pin), and since I bowled 2 games I also had to pay for those, but for the 5 of us to bowl 2 games, including shoes, it was $14 total compared to the $38.50 we would have paid without signing up.

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One of our first stops after I had picked everyone up was our local library to sign-up for the summer reading program. This summer the theme in our library system, the South Central Library System, is Dig Into Reading. They each received reading logs, where they track their time in 15 minute increments and turn in levels at every 2 hours for great prizes (passes to Cave of the Mounds, the Milwaukee Museum and the Dane County Fair, dinosaur gliders, sticky lizards, etc). This was M’s first year getting to sign-up and she also got her very own library card. A paramount day in any young girl’s life, if you ask me.

In addition to the reading logs, the library hosts the occasional program relating to the theme. We are lucky to be in close proximity to about 8 other library branches, so we take advantage of the free activities when we can. Some of the same programs are featured at different libraries throughout the summer, which is nice because we have more flexibility in our schedule on when and where we can see it.

Later in the week we wound our way to Mt. Horeb for their Zoozorts program. This is the first time we’ve attended an event at the Mt. Horeb library, and as a bit of an unintentional, but overtly sassy library critic, I must say their facility, program, and, most importantly, librarian where impressive. They reserved a big space in the middle of the library for the program. I don’t know the layout of the library, but generally children’s programs are given the unused meeting room or slightly smelly conference area, so it was a nice change. The librarian was enthusiastic, which seems hard to come by in the children’s librarians I’ve encountered lately.

Yeah, I know, completely counter-intuitive, but some are just nasty. Down right Agatha Trunchbull.

Finally, the featured program was Zoozort. A live, animal education program by Noelle Tarrant. She had an amazing energy that kept the audience enraptured for the full hour. She filled every minute with information on each animal and allowed the opportunity for every child to touch almost all the animals, which included a fennec fox, bearded dragon, giant marine toad, 6-banded armadillo, a wallaby and more. If you get a chance, try to track her down at one of her events throughout Wisconsin.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed them up, but the Oregon Public Library 4th Annual Worm Race is exactly what it sounds like. The boys were paired into teams, each received a worm-petitor to compete for the coveted trophies and, of course, the glory of being a worm race champion. It was a fairly large event and included worm EMT’s (nurses from a local veterinarian clinic) which was a great way to include local businesses.

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Unfortunately, neither of the boy’s teams made it beyond the first round but they received a certificate, a pass for the Dane County Fair, and, a small bag full of their worm’s gummy counterparts.

The initial idea for our “lunch around the world” idea started during the Olympics last year. As with everyone, we spent those few weeks consumed by the events and the culture of the London Olympics, including making a lunch of Shepard’s pie. This year I decided to expand on the idea as a means of introducing practical skills and global thought.

A fantastic(ally) theoretical idea. The kids seem to think because I live in a space without my parents and that I’m big enough to be an adult that it must translate to a natural cooking ability, like their mothers. But in reality, it doesn’t reach much beyond the same pb&j’s they are capable of making.

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So when in our first week, the random selection was Saudi Arabia, I panicked. Middle Eastern cuisine is not one that I’m familiar with, so after I sent the boys to the computer to find recipes, I stealthily pulled out my phone to do some research of my own. In the end, our menu of falafel, pita chips, hummus, and laban (plain yogurt mixed with water and poured over ice) was easy to make, but less so to consume. Of the 4 kids, only A enjoyed the falafel, he was joined by J in the crunchy consumption of pita chips and hummus, but I was the only one who finished their glass of laban.

We started our first week with behavior management contracts and ended with an unpopular meal. A week book ended with low points for the kids, but really an opportunity for a growth in knowledge and experience.

But, as the responsible adult, I have to say that.

Harried Poppins: School’s Out for the Summer…So Sign Here

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Schools out forev…um…77 days.

But before those 11 weeks can be filled with adventures, new experiences, and memories, we have to deal with the nitty-gritty.

This will be my third summer with A, C, and J, but first with Big M. The addition means a new dynamic for our group. That crew mentality is one that I will stress all summer. I am constantly reminding them that if compromises aren’t reached and tolerance gained, this will be a L-O-N-G summer for all of us (and by all of us, I mean me, of course). It also means that not all of our activities will be based around the interests of the boys. An important, but hard lesson.

Being an only child, A, doesn’t have the same patience and ability to ignore the bossy 4-year old as her older brothers do. This summer is a new experience, but he’s starting to realize that similar to large, seemingly vicious beasts in the woods, if you don’t bother them, they generally won’t bother you.

I decided that because of this new dynamic, and the slight maturity gain that the boys seem to have made since last summer, that I would create individual contracts for everyone to sign and follow throughout the summer. Including me. It’s similar to the contracts that classrooms set up in the first week of school to ensure that both the expectations for behavior and the consequences for poor choices are clear.

It’s a way to keep everyone accountable, as well as providing a safety net in behavior management. The “But-I-didn’t-know” whine doesn’t work when their name is on the line.

I had M sign one, as well, as a means of solidarity in the group and as another introduction to the idea of actions and consequences. At 4, there is less expectation that these rules will be remembered, but, as with any knowledge, each time a concept is introduced a little piece sticks. It can do nothing but help.

Each contract had 8 responsibilities that were the same. In talking to their parents and my previous experience with them, I then personalized the final 3 for each child. I then left spaces for them to add their own rules if they choose to. No one did and I’ve half played with the idea of creating some crazy rules and sneaking them in, but the trust I would lose would far outweigh the hilarity of trying to enforce Tiara Tuesday.

There was some hesitancy in signing the contracts when I first mentioned them, as they were convinced I was making them agree to horrid things, like toilet cleaning and tea parties. It’s amazing what a little ice cream can do to grease the pen. Here’s a link to one of the contracts that I used. I keep them in the back of the binder and gave a copy to the parents so that it can be reinforced, if necessary.

Through this whole half-hour process, I’m sure they thought I found this to be the highlight of the summer. They probably swore they heard me cackle, as I rubbed my hands together, and plotted to make this the most responsibility-filled, boring summer yet. If they only knew, I hate this stuff as much as they do! I don’t want to have to say, “You need to say kind things.” or “Critical comments won’t be tolerated.” But unfortunately, I have to.

This sounds like a it-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you statement, that I always called b.s. on as a kid, but, well, it’s kind of what it is.

If I didn’t know that there was a potential for that behavior, it wouldn’t need to be said. It sounds terribly pessimistic, but think the worst sometimes. Don’t voice these thoughts to the children, but keep them in the back of your mind. You’ll be better prepared for a proactive solution when you see it coming than if you naïvely considered it impossible.

So with the contracts signed, any semblance of school is gone.

Except for the required reading…and math…

Only 77 more days until September.

Harried Poppins: A Nanny’s Summer Survival Guide

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As I venture outside of the comfort I’ve created for myself in 14 years working in childcare and education, there is one job they’ll have to pry from me. I spend my summer’s “off” from the school district herding a small pack of wild and imaginatively fun beasts around Southern Wisconsin (and occasionally Northern Illinois).

I try to fill our days, but not schedule them. Living just south of Madison affords the opportunities of city activities AND adventures on the beautiful lakes and prairies.

And, of course, the free-er, the better.

This series will give parents, grandparents, babysitters, and other summer caretakers ideas, resources, and a guide to plan a summer void of boredom (by everyone). A summer of exploration and expansion.

I’m working with a short crew of 4. A, C, and J are 10, 10 and 8, while Big M is 4 (going on 13 and the Big is solely indicative of her personality), so the activities are designed for a range of interests and abilities.

I’ve created a binder, our Bible, for the summer. Each day has a page, listing everything that I know is going on in an approximately 30 mile radius that day. It also includes brochures and a listing of activities that can be done anytime. Not only does it make it an easy one stop resource for me, but I’ve made it clear that, “I’m bored,” is not an option. They can use the binder as a resource, as well.

One important concept that has made my summers easier is to remember that as a caretaker of school age children, I am the facilitator not the entertainer. Provide the resources and then let them create their own adventure. You’re doing nothing for their critical thinking skills by being the cruise director.

We have a few activities that we do daily (or weekly) that will be our constants throughout the summer. Swim lessons and swim team happen every morning. My one short breather in the day is a half hour overlap by all 4. I generally take that time to get in a quick chapter or social media check.

As I’ve done in the previous two summers, I require 30 minutes of reading and math a day. Thankfully we are truly a pack of book nerds, so the 30 minutes is usually far exceeded. However, during that reading time, they must read a “challenge book.” A good fit book that they haven’t read before and that occasionally requires word deduction. Big M is pre-reader, so I will read to her and she’ll return the favor by doing a “picture walk” through the book.

I was lucky enough to find a math workbook and a multiplication facts dry erase workbook early in the summer at a garage sale. A, C, and J rotate 10 minute stations between the two workbooks and www.freerice.com. Each correctly solved problem on FreeRice is a donation of 10 grains of rice to support the United Nations World Food Programme. We’ve set a goal of reaching 50,000 grains by the end of the summer. The other easy aspect of FreeRice is the ability to quickly change between difficulty levels, which makes for smooth transitions between stations.

Finally, each week we are cooking a lunch of traditional foods found in different locations around the world. One person closes their eyes and points on a map. There is a trifecta in benefits from this experience. Most obvious is the practical knowledge of preparing and cooking food. So, you are welcome, future spouses. They are also responsible for the grocery shopping. They lead the way, Lewis and Clark-style, through the grocery store with list,cart, and calculator in hand. We try to keep our total under $10.

Beyond the prep work and (age appropriate) cooking tasks, they are responsible for researching the types of traditional foods for that area. As the two oldest move towards middle school (they will start 5th grade in the fall), reports and research papers will become commonplace in their homework. While researching we talk about what a good source is, how we can tell that a source is trustworthy, and the most efficient way to collect their information.

Now the real reason that we do this activity each week: I’m cultivating a mini-horde of future travel partners.

Not really, but I think that global awareness cannot be taught too early. More exposure to different cultures, even more exposure to maps, is an easy way to plant a seed towards community-mindedness.

Beyond these constants, we track down all the most fun museums, fairs, parks, fishing holes, swimming spots and other activities South Central Wisconsin can offer. I’ll play catch up this week and post about our first few weeks, but then look for the Harried Poppins series posts weekly for ideas on how to entertain your short crew this summer.

The Sneak-Up of Summer

Beyond having folders full of half-written posts and ideas on post-it notes spread throughout my house, summer has snuck up on me. Trips to St. Louis, then into my summer job, weekend adventures up to Door County, and then a surprise visit home to Washington State for my mom’s birthday and much-needed Auntie time have taken away my time and energy to finish. Summer has officially snuck up on me and I know that, in time, fall will do the same. This is just a quick note to let you know that I haven’t disappeared into the archived stacks or down a dusty, country road in search of my next journey. Many more posts to come in the next few weeks. Thanks for your patience.